While it’s not necessarily a display of the showy bits of Cook Islands culture – the dancing, the costumes, the song – the way its counterpart Mou Piri is, it’s culturally insightful on several levels.
Artistically speaking, it brings the real Rarotonga to the big screen.
It’s a testament to daily life, including the bits that might not be glamorous but that make Rarotonga special. The scene shots are subtle but deliberate, creatively woven together to summon the sights, sounds, and smells of this beautiful island.
We see the dog drink from a Tip Top ice-cream container that doubles as a water bowl. The camera zeroes in on brightly coloured pins securing washing on the line, a pigpen of corrugated iron in the yard, lace curtains framing louvered windows, a pack of Winfield Greens on the kitchen table. Spliced in throughout the film are shots of Palace Takeaways, Raro Fried Chicken, Muri Beach, the abandoned Sheraton, Te Rua Manga.
We hear the incessant crowing of roosters, the plink of the ukulele, and G-Dub’s broadcasting voice narrating the plotline. We watch a smiling group of locals singing on the beach, green bottles in hand. In 14 minutes, the film features a local home, local humor, and local slang. But perhaps most importantly, it touches on pertinent local issues, some positive (the incredible strength of family ties) and others a bit more somber (large-scale outward migration).
In a nutshell, Dog Save the Queen follows Nuka, a young boy whose father recently abandoned his family, leaving his mother with financial burdens she can hardly bear. To put food on the table, she leases a plot of family land to a foreign hotel in exchange for a $7000 cheque. Times are tough, and Nuka suggests to his mum they can “get a new start in Sydney with that kind of cash”. This is our first hint that Dog Save the Queen is going to dig beneath the smiling surface of life in the Cook Islands.
Nuka despairs at the prospect of being banned from his own land. He just wants to go fishing on his beach, to live his life the way he’s used to living it, but he knows his mum needs the money.
Then, the Queen of England sends word to Rarotonga that she’s offering a reward of one million pounds to the person whose dog resembles the royal Corgi. Her Majesty believes one of her dogs birthed puppies during a visit to Rarotonga years before and she wants to keep her canine bloodline pure.
Nuka’s dog turns out to be a royal descendent, and Nuka gets the million.
Of course, once Nuka’s relatives hear about the handsome reward, they come flocking back to Rarotonga to claim their portion of it. This upsets Nuka, who resents these family members for leaving the islands in the first place.
“You left off just like Dad did, and you hear about the money and you come back,” he says to his brother, though at his age he doesn’t understand that his brother had to leave to make money.
“What were we meant to do Nuka?” one uncle asks. “Money makes the world go ‘round.”
This is an important quote because it addresses the root of the Cook Islands’ depopulation problem. People aren’t leaving because they don’t like living in paradise. Many are leaving because they feel it’s financially necessary.
“Our film explores the themes of family and sacrifice and more specifically the idea that it takes personal sacrifice to hold families together,” director Marcus Hamill wrote to me in an email.
“It seems to me that culture is what holds a society together, and the foundation for culture is family. So in a sense we wanted to explore the idea that a society and culture is only as strong as the bonds that holds family together. Of course in the Cook Islands these bonds are often tested through the pressures that result from the need to leave paradise and chase money overseas.”
Toward the end of Dog Save the Queen, Nuka has an idea. He suggests using the reward to buy back the lease to his family’s land and build a boutique hotel on it.
Initially his uncles resist. They want the money, and they don’t want to wait for it to yield earnings.
“But isn’t family all about the sacrifices we make for each other?” Nuka asks them, and eventually they agree to build a hotel and share its profits.
Everything ends up working out for the Tamarua family – they retain their land, start a business, and their family remains in paradise.
But real life doesn’t always work this way. I’d venture to bet almost everyone in the Cook Islands has family members who left the country, reluctantly, to make money – and never came home.
This is the sad truth Hamill and his team uncovered in the research phase of the filmmaking process.
He explains: “The other thing that really struck us about Cook Islanders was your incredibly strong connection to family, land and culture and yet sadly you’re one of the most heavily displaced cultures in the world and we felt that the conflict and tension created by this was something well worth exploring in our film.”
Hamill said the film began as a lighthearted fairytale but eventually took on a life of its own, developing deeper cultural meaning, presenting itself as “a story waiting to be told”.
And it was, of course. I think the value of Dog Save the Queen, apart from its focus on the daily realities of Cook Islands life, is that it addresses the important issue of depopulation. After all, this is the Cook Islands’ foremost problem, and only by continuing to talk about it can we begin to find viable solutions for alleviating it.
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